Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola

The Belly of Paris  was originally published in 1873 as Le Ventre de Paris; it was the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart series of novels and is centred around the busy Les Halles market in the centre of Paris.

This excerpt comes from a point about three quarters the way through the novel and takes place in Madame Lecoeur’s cheese storeroom. Also present is Mlle Saget and La Sarriette. Mlle Saget has found out some information about the main character, Florent. Although the reader of the novel already knows from the opening pages what this secret is I won’t reveal it here as I want to concentrate largely on the descriptive and lyrical prose of this section. It is, in total, about five pages long and begins with a page long description of all the cheeses in the storeroom, the women continue gossiping as the smells of all the cheeses in the enclosed room becomes overwhelming.

I would have liked to just quote the whole section but that might have been a bit excessive. Instead I’ve picked out some of the more descriptive text and left out most of the dialogue and gossiping, this is because the dialogue makes more sense as part of the plot, whereas the descriptive text more easily stands alone. I’ve indicated where I’ve skipped some text with an ellipsis in square brackets. I believe that this section was known as ‘The Cheese Symphony’ for reasons that will soon be clear.

All around them the cheeses were stinking. On the two shelves at the back of the stall were huge blocks of butter: Brittany butter overflowing its baskets; Normandy butter wrapped in cloth, looking like models of bellies on to which a sculptor had thrown some wet rags; other blocks, already cut into and looking like high rocks full of valleys and crevices. […] But for the most part the cheeses stood in piles on the table. There, next to the one-pound packs of butter, a gigantic cantal was spread on leaves of white beet, as though split by blows from an axe; then came a golden Cheshire cheese, a gruyère like a wheel fallen from some barbarian chariot, some Dutch cheeses suggesting decapitated heads smeared in dried blood and as hard as skulls – which has earned them the name of ‘death’s heads’. A parmesan added its aromatic tang to the thick, dull smell of the others. […] Then came the strong-smelling cheeses: the mont-d’ors, pale yellow, with a mild sugary smell; the troyes, very thick and bruised at the edges, much stronger, smelling like a damp cellar; the camemberts, suggesting high game; the neufchâtels, the limbourgs, the marolles, the pont-l’évèques, each adding its own shrill note in a phrase that was harsh to the point of nausea; […]
A silence fell at the mention of Gavard. They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the marolles and the limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan, while the bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained note.

( The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2007, p210-216)

Exceptional Excerpts: Germinal, by Emile Zola

Germinal, (1885) by Emile Zola, is the thirteenth novel in his twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart, but it’s the first that I have read by this great French writer. The realism of this story of a miners’ strike in the 1860s in northern France is stunning.

In this Sensational Snippet, the strike has got out of control. A small contingent of soldiers are guarding Belgian scabs in the pit and the strikers are attacking them with stones and bricks. Zola – whose sympathies throughout this novel are with the miners and their cause – shows that things are never as simple as they seem afterwards in the cold light of day:

The little squad was nearly lost to sight under the hail of stones. Fortunately they landed too high and merely pitted the wall above. What was to be done? For a moment the captain considered retreating into the buildings, but the very thought of showing his back to the mob made his pale face flush – and in any case it was no longer practicable, for if they made the slightest movement they would be lynched. A brick had just broken the peak of his cap and blood was trickling down his forehead. Several of his men were wounded, and he realized that they were at the end of their tether and had reached the stage of instinctive self-defence when they would no longer obey their superiors. The sergeant had let out an oath when his shoulder had nearly been put out and his skin bruised by a heavy thud that sounded like a dolly banging the washing. The recruit had been grazed in two places, his thumb was smashed and his right knee was smarting: how much longer were they going to put up with this? One brick had bounced up and hit the veteran in the groin, and he had turned green and was raising his rifle with his thin arms. Three times the captain was on the point of ordering them to fire. He was torn with perplexity, and for some seconds an apparently endless struggle within him shook all his ideas, his sense of duty and his beliefs as a man and as a soldier. The bricks rained thicker still, and just as he was opening his mouth to shout ‘Fire!’ the rifles went off of their own accord; first three shots, then five, then the whole volley of a platoon and then, long afterwards, a single shot in the midst of silence.

There was a moment of stupefaction. They had really fired, and the crowd stood motionless, unable to believe it. Then piercing shrieks arose, while the bugle sounded the cease fire. And then a wild panic like the stampede of cattle before machine-guns, a frantic rush through the mud.

(Germinal, by Emile Zola, Penguin Classics, 1954 translation by L.W. Tancock, p 410-1)

Selected by Lisa Hill, 17/11/11 and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.